Fake News and Faith-Based “Gavin Stone”—Review

gavinstoneThe Resurrection of Gavin Stone was released this past weekend with a great deal of grassroots fanfare. I was bombarded by people telling me that the film was “HILARIOUS” and that I needed to support it because the “Christian film genre needs help.” I was skeptical about the film being that funny, but I trusted my sources and watched it.

When the theater lights came up after the end credits, I realized that all the social media entries about the “HILARIOUS” film were all fake news. My friends were duped, or they’ve learned how to lie for the sake of a good cause. Nah, they were duped.

It seems that the more a person watches campy films to support a cause, the more the bar of their artistic scale lowers. They loose track of what is great cinema and what should’ve been relegated to a TV Movie of the Week (MOW) on a small cable network.

But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. I’ll suppose they hadn’t watched La La Land or Hidden Figures yet, which would have shifted their skewed perspective back to a healthy norm. And, they probably hadn’t recently watched videos of The Blind Side, Gravity or Les Misérables.

Then again, maybe they’re stuck on squishy Hallmark movies, where in the first three minutes of the film you know exactly where the plot is headed—comfortably taking away any unwanted surprises. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone did that very thing, lifting its tired plots directly from Hallmark Christmas and Winterfest movies.

I don’t slight director Dallas Jenkins for using a Hallmark format for a campy story in the least, but I do find it interesting that he was quoted as saying his desire was that the movie “drives people to church on Sunday morning,” when the film was clearly made for the proverbial choir.

The film was loaded with Christian jargon that wasn’t understood by the general public, making it impossible to create any desire in a non-believer to attend church. The “inside jokes” also made it difficult for the audience to feel compelled to join the click, rather than being repulsed by it. That’s not to say Jenkins didn’t have the right to make a film for the choir, but to say he hopes it reaches unbelievers sounds like the perfect set up for fake news.

When a film’s language is campy Christian, gritty secular crowds won’t get it. Most won’t even buy the ticket. In fact, the moment Christians hear that the film is yet another faith-based campy story that belongs on a small cable network, box office sales will dry up. But, it won’t really matter, as Jenkins got his two weeks in theaters to increase video sales.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the film was a flop at the box office. Opening weekend saw less than $2,500 per screen average; a number that once a normal film drops to is clearly on its way out.

But the film isn’t all bad. The good news is that the choir will laugh hardily when watching this comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, the choir might finally be able to poke fun at themselves after watching this film that takes the starch out of the up-tight ministry leader. Jenkins did a great job at getting the proverbial choir to look at themselves from an outsider’s viewpoint.

There were even several great moments of acting aside from the purposeful cheeky scenes filled with self-deprecating choir humor and campy fun. Had the title been better suited toward comedy and the film shot as a television special, I’m convinced it would’ve had much higher viewership.

The timing of the film might have added to the film’s death, since many in the choir are still trying to see award winning films like La La Land and Hidden Figures – Both are must sees in my book.

So let me be clear … stating that the film is “HILARIOUS” is fake news. Saying that the film will “delight members of the choir and their friends” is truth. Saying that the film is “original” is fake news. Saying that the film is heartwarming is truth. Are you getting the picture?

My recommendation, go see La La Land and Hidden Figures first.

Copyright 2017 by CJ Powers
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Star Trek vs. Faith-Based Canon

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Star Trek is one of the most revered science fiction franchises that hold tightly to its canon. The 13 motion pictures and 6 television series all follow the production bibles that have painstakingly been kept corruption free for 50 years. Even the independent fan films have focused on excruciating details to honor the canon.

A recent copyright infringement suit sped its first part of judgment thanks to the accuracy of the canon and the many production companies that continued adhering to the rules of the franchise world without exception. Many Star Trek bible elements have been released and highly supported by the fans, forcing production companies to scrutinize every aspect of their production in order to stay true to its canon.

But in the faith-based films that include stories based on the Bible, a canon of 66 books, few production companies adhere to it. The Young Messiah was released last March and was touted as one of the best faith-based films of 2016, but it broke canon with little repercussions.

The film is a story about Jesus at age seven and his family’s departure from Egypt to return back to Nazareth. This fresh childhood perspective gave audiences an explorative glimpse into how their future Savior grew into his religious identity.

Breaking canon in the name of “creative license” is something that Star Trek storytellers would never do. But, the makers of The Young Messiah had no problems stepping away from canon. According to the book of John, one of the 66 books within the Christian canon, Jesus performed his first “sign” or miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. But, in the film, which takes place years earlier, he brought a dead bird back to life, healed his sick uncle and restored sight to a Rabbi.

While the director intended these signs to reveal the humanity of Jesus, which it did, it broke canon and distorted the truth for its viewers. This creates conflict between those defending faith-based films and those who teach from the canon in real life. And it doesn’t end there.

Back in the 1960’s a group of historical revisionists decided to adjust the thinking of the church through the media. They created a story that Jesus’ hands weren’t actually pierced when he was put on the cross because the Greek word for hand also included the wrist. They also stated that Jesus’ hands would’ve torn open due to his weight, and therefore, he was actually pierced in his wrists when they crucified him.

This notion broke canon, but evangelists liked the “new revelation” and spread the word throughout the world. Today, most pastors who weren’t around for the origin of this story teach that Jesus was pierced in his forearms, albeit close to the wrist. They shifted to the forearm because the wrist is just a series of bones that couldn’t be pierced, and the canon said not a bone in his body was broken, which piercing his wrist would have done. These further adjustments took congregations even farther away from the purity of the canon.

By the way, a couple years ago I interviewed a nurse who worked for an orthopedic hand surgeon. She said that Jesus could easily have been pierced in his hands because of the vast network of ligaments that crisscross like a web inside of the hand, which is also strong enough to hold the body’s weight without tearing.

This Easter a new faith-based film that has broken canon will be released by the title of The Shack. The most obvious departure from canon is that God the Father shows up as God the Mother. Canon states that God wanted to be called the Heavenly Father, but historical revisionists are pushing for God being able to show himself as anything he wants, which meets the canon of the Hindus and Universalists, not the Christians.

What I don’t understand is how Christians, whose lives depend on its writings, are so willing to break canon in the name of creative license, but Star Trek will do everything in its power to maintain their sacred canon. Even J. J. Abrams during the filming of Star Trek 2009 talked about the difficulty in maintaining canon, but how it was well rewarded by the audience’s appreciation.

So, why do faith-based films not follow canon? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, especially since Star Trek is make believe (suggesting that canon doesn’t matter) and Christianity is reality (suggesting canon is critical).

Copyright © 2017 by CJ Powers

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017

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Last year was filled with personal loss, crazy politics and the courting of China’s Wanda in Hollywood. It was a year that most people wanted to exit before they incurred too many losses. The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that 2017 had to be better.

For 2017 to be better for me, at least from the perspective of the world of entertainment, I’d like to see some changes in the motion picture industry. I’ve decided to consolidate my thoughts by genre.

ROM-COMS
I’m tired of romantic comedies being too dramatic and short on comedy. This might be due to the slow pace all Rom-Coms have fallen into, which likely destroyed comedic timing. This year I’d like to see a fast paced Rom-Com that takes 10 minutes for the audience to figure out how the show ends instead of the standard three minutes.

HORROR
I’ve had enough with the screaming beauties. How about the first horrifying attack being against a buff man instead of a high-pitched screamer. I mean does every horror film have to start with a blond scream? Not in 2017.

FAITH-BASED
I beg you to stop preaching in an emotion-based demonstrative medium (show don’t tell). Learn how to show the human condition so your redemptive moment at the end makes God look majestic instead of trite. Take time to rewrite your scripts two dozen more times before shooting your ultra-low budget film and make sure at least one scene uses subtext instead of Evangelical jargon.

ACTION
Please consider shortening your action sequences enough to add a subplot into your movie that helps us to actually care about the protagonist. I’m tired of comic book stereotypes in an age when diversity makes us stronger.

ADVENTURE
Yes, thinning out your plotlines has increased your box office success, but when you thin it out too much no one wants to watch the story a second time—That’s why box office dollars started to shrink. Give us something to chew on that transcends the action plotline.

MUSICALS
Making a few more every year would put lots of smiles on the faces in the reclining theatre seats. Maybe its time for a new franchise of musicals like the old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney stories.

BUDDY COP
These films are made all too far away from the previous one. Everyone likes camaraderie intermixed with thrills and spills. Use your creativity and come up with a few scenes we haven’t seen before and we’ll let you toss in a few scenes that play like an old romantic rerun of happy days gone by.

DRAMA
This genre has turned dark and can’t seem to come back into the light without turning cheeky in the process. I challenge you to write a smart drama that carries a happy tone with sporadic nightmares that are quickly sorted by the protagonist. We want the star to step up with an amazing demonstration of unconditional love coated in self-deprecating humor and a touch of chivalry. And while you’re at it, stick it in a courtroom that is rendered with respect, instead of the bitter views of those abused by attorneys.

I suppose that’s enough dreaming to kick off this year. How about you? I’d love to see your comments on what changes you’d like to see this on the silver screen.

Copyright © 2017 by CJ Powers

Caged No More – Review

Lisa_ArnoldLisa Arnold is at a turning point in her filmmaking career. Her directing chops in the faith-based genre are within reach of the Kendrick (Fireproof, Courageous, War Room) brothers’ skills. While she is still known for her acting, she’s quietly becoming a director to be reckoned with.

Caged No More demonstrated her passion for heart touching story. Her technical skills also exceeded the typical faith-based production techniques. Several scenes bumped up into the quality levels typical in TV movies and a few scenes were straight-out cinematic.

She relentlessly went after the audience in Caged No More, giving viewers little time to breath between heart wrenching scenes. She did present some humor to lighten the mood a third of the way into the story, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from gripping my heart as the story escalated. I actually had to pause the DVD twice to allow my emotions to calm down.

cagednomore-screenshots-0002Part of this emotional charge came from Arnold’s subject matter. Caged No More is about the abduction of Jr. High girls into sex trafficking. The last national record I read had >14,000 girls ages 12 – 14 sold annually. That does not include girls 15 – 18. Nor does it count girls from less secure countries. And, it doesn’t count the boys who are also sold.

Caged No More finds an interesting balance with Arnold’s passion, the elements in faith-based films required by churches, and a form of entertainment that keeps the plot moving. Her careful crafting of the message is ideal for introducing congregations to the horrific reality our girls face.

Unfortunately, the film is not one I’d watch again due to the lack of breather moments. Nor am I interested in seeing the sequel due out in 2017, just in case she hasn’t figured out how to lace in more humor for people like me.

cagednomore-screenshots-0030However, if you love to cry during movies, I highly recommend you watch Caged No More and watch the second film in the trilogy next year. It will also give you an opportunity to see why Arnold will soon become the “queen” of faith-based films, standing next to the king Kendrick brothers in the limelight.

As for me, I’ll be trying to figure out how to un-see what was presented so I can get back to a normal life. That’s not to say Arnold didn’t use extreme tact in her presentation, she did, but once you learn what she presents you’ll feel obligated to take some form of action to save at least one girl.

Well done, Arnold! Oh, and give me a call sometime if you want to brainstorm breather moments for your sequel – giving folks like me a chance to watch.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in hopes that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Awakened (Faith-Based Thriller) – Review

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I receive numerous films to critique, but I only take time to review the ones that have something unique to offer. So you can imagine my surprise to get a copy of a “faith-based thriller.” It was an oxymoron that I had to watch to satisfy my curiosity.

Faith-based films are slow, filled with preaching and mostly display low production value. Thrillers are mysterious, increase in intensity and speed of storytelling until the climax. The juxtaposition of the two made me curious, as I had to learn how the co-directors accomplished this feat.

The novelty of the concept peaked my interest when I learned the film won three festival awards and was awarded four Doves for family-friendly content. I had no idea how a thriller could be family-friendly, so I couldn’t wait to watch the film.

The faith-based elements of the film was certainly in place with a very slow pace that caused me to doze off three times. The preaching was intact with numerous quoted scriptures and a half dozen preaching moments. And, the production values were extremely poor.

The thriller side never ramped up its pace, nor did it compell me to watch the film until the last reveal. In fact, most of the thriller moments were more horror oriented and badly executed. I suppose I could say the film was horr-ible.

Co-directors Eugene Cuevas and Brian R. Reed shared the creation of several short films together, but this first feature length film of theirs was a bust. Hopefully they learned valuable insights into filmmaking from this disaster.

mediasI also hope that the three festivals that awarded the film for Best Visual Effects, Best Film and Best Feature Film have learned not to put their seal of approval on bad films. I can understand the desire to award the least worst film when a festival isn’t able to draw in great filmmakers, but the only way bad faith-based films and thrillers will ever improve is when only great films receive awards.

In case you’re wondering, the story is about a journalist who is captivated by a demon in the wake of losing his job. The demon appears in the form of a sexy 1960’s blues singer who convinces him to seek out the real story of her death. But thankfully, his spiritual wife realizes that sometimes the right hand has to help the left hand, so she does battle to save her husband.

The man feels like a “nobody” at the beginning of the film and demonstrates that he is a “nobody” at the end of the film. He doesn’t change or grow, so I’m not sure why the story was about him. She, on the other hand, is wise in the beginning and becomes more spiritual for her husband’s sake, by the end of the story.

For this film to receive four Doves for being family-friendly, someone had to have fallen asleep during its viewing and didn’t want anyone to know about it. With the poltergeist scenes of pictures flying off the wall and the bed sheet sitting up in the form of a dead woman, I’m not sure I’d view it as family-friendly. Not to mention the movement of the dead woman’s facial skin toward the end of the film.

My curiosity of how the co-directors merged faith-based and thriller genres has been quenched – They failed. Two diametrically opposed genres cannot be merged into anything worth watching. Rather than purchasing this DVD, take your family out to see The Jungle Book.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Ewan McGregor’s Last Days in the Desert — Review

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Finding out that Ewan McGreger stared in the film selected by AFI FEST and SUNDANCE, I felt it was a work that I needed to see during the launch of its limited release. I was also eager to see McGregor play both Jesus and Satan. While there were several moments of great value, the film was boring and diametrically opposed to scripture.

The premise of the film is a three-day journey for Jesus returning to Jerusalem after his 40 days of fasting in the desert. The exploration of this “what if” artistic expression found the filmmaker ignorant of the scriptures or not caring.

In fact, the inaccuracy and mishandling of scriptures was so bad, NPR raved about how excellent the film was and classified it to be as good as “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which Evangelical leaders declared blasphemous in 1988.

The first problem with this film is that Satan continues to tempt Jesus over the three-day journey back home. In the scriptures, after Jesus resisted the devil three times, using scripture, Satan flees. Their ongoing battle shows the two almost chummy in nature with Jesus calling on Satan to show him a boy’s future through divination. I counted seven of these types of inaccuracies.

The cinematography by Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was very well done, but the beauty of the picture was not enough to offset the confusion of story and a bad story structure.

The film is clearly presented as a story of Jesus, but the story unfolds about a boy that Jesus encounters. While a person might jump to the conclusion that it’s a story within a story, the idea fails to launch.

The parents of the boy are the most interesting of characters, save for Satan. The boy comes next and Jesus is the most passive person of little interest. Even director Rodrigo García shared his fascination for the parents and Satan and how he tried to compensate, bringing more life to the character of Jesus.

The biggest shock to me was the reaction of the audience after the lights came up. Most people raved about the film, dismissing the long boring parts and the mishandling of scripture. One person said that they understood the director’s choices based on artistic license and hoped the film would generate more like it.

While the film was a great discussion starter, it failed to entertain and it took faith-based films back to the Stone Age – Although, it was not promoted as a faith-based film due to its inaccurate content. And, while it was a selection of two notable festivals, it didn’t win a single award.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Faith-Based Films: Survive or Fade Out

I was asked what direction I saw faith-based films headed. The answer is difficult to explain without getting into the proper dollars, art, and story structure. All three elements must be present for a film genre to survive, but most “faith-based” films are void of all three.

I’ve attached a financial chart (provided by The Numbers) of what many have labeled as faith-based films to help my explanation.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 7.57.17 PMAfter chatting on the phone with co-producer Andrew Wallace of Heaven is for real and talking with the original writer of the story, Todd Burpo, I learned that the film was produced like a regular independent Hollywood film – Not a faith-based film. It had the standard budget of $12MM, a cast of well-known faces, artistic choices, and a strong story structure. The sum of its elements drove the box office to cross the $100MM mark.

Miracles from Heaven followed suit in maintaining Hollywood standards, artistic choices and a $13MM budget. While the film is still in theaters, it has crossed the $60MM mark. And again, it was not shot as a faith-based film.

God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 were both shot as faith-based films. Neither film used a good story structure, artistic value was lacking, and the budget was an estimated $1.5MM each. With the sequel lacking all the key elements, there’s no surprise that the film is tanking.

The original, God’s Not Dead, arguably made money while lacking those same elements. However, the film’s success was attributed to its gimmicky marketing push that went viral thanks to the Newsboys – Something the sequel didn’t reproduce. In other words, the marketing campaign overcame the lack of key elements.

Risen took a Movie of the Week (MOW) approach. Reducing the film’s artistic choices to that of an MOW budget, keeping it below the $60MM threshold. Woodlawn, however, had no surprises being shot like a faith-based film and reaping its expected rewards.

Hollywood style films will always out perform faith-based films, unless the filmmaker pulls together their own large fan base like the Kendrick Brothers.

The real question behind the survival of a Hollywood production that includes the three key elements versus a faith-based film that does not, is which process is sustainable and reproducible?

The Kendrick Brothers have a sustainable fan base for their films that will support them for years to come. However, they have not been able to reproduce themselves in any of the film’s they’ve supported (The Lost Medallion and Beyond the Mask). They share and attribute their success to prayer and a team void of sin. Unfortunately, filmmakers who have followed that model have not reaped similar success.

The Hollywood process, which includes some who are without sin and pray, reproduces itself extremely well. The system drives individuals to become masters of their craft using an effective apprentice model. The system focuses on great story structure, artistic value and the appropriate budget to achieve success.

Because the faith-based film process is not reproducible and is unable to launch others like Alex and Stephen Kendrick, it will fade away until someone else brings new life to Christian films down the road. After all, the Christian film genre was created twice before and both times it faded away.

As for the Hollywood approach, it’s been around since the early 1900s with no end in sight because it’s easily reproducible. Those who follow this process understand that story is king, not message. They also understand that to demonstrate an emotional win for a character, the story must first demonstrate his or her original depravity – The greater the contrast, the greater the story.

Copyright 2016 by CJ Powers